Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles Dir. Chuck Workman

[Cohen Media Group; 2015]

Styles: documentary, biographical clip show
Others: Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures

I have a vivid memory of a test question in my undergrad Intro to Film class, seemingly a lifetime ago, that asked,”What happened to Orson Welles’ career after Citizen Kane?” I don’t remember the exact answers, but they were along the lines of A) “He went on to make many great films”, B) “He was mediocre” and C) “He was a great disappointment”. Now, I love that particular professor to death, but it has always bothered me, increasingly so as I dug further into the wealth of treasures that is Welles filmography, that the answer on that particular test was not, as it should be, an unequivocal “A”. Now, it’s true that the film community, at least critics and historians, have done a virtual rewrite of Welles’ legacy since the turn of the millennium and his reputation as a difficult and inefficient artist who could not be trusted with finishing a project has been rebuilt to that of a true cinematic genius, if only one whose true potential was thwarted at every turn by the fuckery of the studios and finicky financial backers. Yes, Orson Welles was a man who left many films incomplete, took years to finish others, was a perfectionist who would not release anything until he deemed it worthy of his name, loved to eat and was as arrogant and self-assured as he was self-deprecating — but he was also far ahead of his time and spent the remainder of his career paying the cost for that while paving the way for a whole new generation of filmmakers and for independent cinema itself.

What is truly disappointing about Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is that as fascinated as it is by Welles’ ascent, his unfair decline and lifelong battles to have his visions realized, it never really offers any insight on his actual work. Director Chuck Workman dutifully compiles a wide array of material tracing every era of Welles’ personal life as well as footage from each film Welles directed (even the rare, never-before released/completed films such as Merchant of Venice, Don Quixote, and The Other Side of the Wind, which is supposedly currently being compiled into something resembling Welles’ vision and, given the 7-8 minutes of footage currently available, would be amazing in any feature-length incarnation), but packing all these biographical details and powerful images into a mere 90 minutes only serves to dilute their power and make what is and should be astonishing into something both rote and scatterbrained. Its insistence in cramming every inch of a truly complex, contradictory and tragic man’s life into such an obscenely short film, similar to the Hollywood biopic formula, makes Magician feel more like an Wikipedia entry with a quick scan through IMDb thrown in for good measure than a film looking to break new ground or examine Welles thematic preoccupations and radical cinematic style.

As a huge fan of Welles, it was wonderful to see his lesser-known flawed masterpieces like Chimes of Midnight and The Immortal Story given nearly as much screen time as the usual suspects like Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil, but ultimately these glimpses are only as intriguing as the clips themselves. As Welles’ unknowing mentor John Ford (Welles famously admitted to watching Stagecoach 40 times before making Citizen Kane) once said of Monument Valley, all you have to do is point the camera at beautiful scenery to get a beautiful image. In this sense, Magician is more of a travel brochure of Welles’ life with brief looks at his cinematic genius and well-documented wit along with various talking heads chiming in with anecdotes and heaps of praise.

The disorienting nature of this rapid fire approach may sound appealing and sure, who wouldn’t love a Dziga Vertov style documentary about any great filmmaker, but this is more a disappointing patchwork of found footage than a fundamental stylistic device. The film’s of the barrage of facts, stories and images that make up the film add up to significantly less than its individual parts and while there is more than enough here to pique the interest of a budding cinephile with limited exposure to the director, there is no depth of inquiry or analysis that that would satisfy any film buff with even a modicum of knowledge of Welles. Perhaps I’m asking for too much, but for a director of his stature, quality over quantity should be the rule (and for Welles, it in fact was) and Workman should either have trimmed down his focus to a few aspects of Welles’ life and work or found a way to make this a multi-part documentary that gives its subject the time and consideration it deserves. As it is Magician feels like a disconnected variety of clips (unsurprisingly Workman is known mostly for his work in compiling clips for the Academy Awards and AMC, among others) that only serves to diminish rather than revere the accomplishments of one of the truly great directors.

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